"Yeah, same here." Silence descended again and they stopped at the stop light across from the Dairy Queen. The parking lot was empty and the open sign wasn't lit. None of the lights appeared to be on. John leaned forward to try and look through the glass storefront. A horn behind him alterted him that the light had turned green and he's missed it. He pulled forward into the intersection, slowly going past the Dairy Queen as he and Devon looked at the closed building. As they watched a mother and daughter crossed the parking lot from the neighboring convenience store and tried the door. They appeared to read a sign on the front door and left.
“What so you suppose that means?” John said as they circled the block.
“I don't know. Jeff's truck was in the back where he usually parks. Want to call him or go in?"
“Let's go in, but knock on the back door.” He looked at Devon, “No jokes about the back door.”
Devon held his hands out as if to say, “Who, me?”
John turned into the back parking lot, parked beside Jeff's truck, and checked his hair in the rearview mirror, pushing it over out of his eyes before opening his door.
"You think you're pretty enough now?" Devon asked as he climbed out of the car and lit a cigarette taking a deep drag as the door shut behind him.
"Prettier'n you." John said locking the doors with the remote.
"That's not what your Mom says." Devon counters as the two of them walk around Jeff's truck.
"Yeah, but she like's 'em rough looking. It's why she married a miner." John's dad had been working in the mines outside of town for over fifteen years, working his way up from earth mover driver to an office job. He was one of the only executives in the office that had started in the mines. John knocked on the door in three bursts of three short knocks, emulating Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. He didn't say "Penny" between each knock, but he paused as if he had.
They heard the door unlock and watched as it slid open just enough for them to go in. Devon flicked his cigarette into the parking lot after a last big drag, exhaling as he walked in. The back room was dark and piled high with cardboard boxes. The smell of bread baking and the heat of the big ovens hit them immediately. Jeff made bread in the back of the Dairy Queen and his dinner rolls were the dinner rolls of choice all over town. Any church gathering would have them and most family dinners, even Thanksgiving would have a basket of his rolls on the table. The bread smell was off, a little bit sour though.
"Oh. Hey Dev. No Mark? I figured he'd be with you."
"He had to work so we came by instead. Why you closed?" John asked looking around the dark room. Devon seemed to be hanging behind him, even more than usual but Devon was often a little awkward around adults so John didn't think any thing of it.
"I didn't close. I got closed. I called the extension office to get my water tested," Jeff said crossing to the table where he proofed the rolls so they would rise. He opened the door to the proofer and the sour smell of the rolls got stronger. "None of them are rising. I think there's something wrong with the water. Something that's killing the yeast." Jeff was tall and whip thin, short black hair in a Caesar cut with just enough gel to keep it in place while he worked, and walked with a slight limp in his left leg. "They came out and said I had something wrong with the pipes and they'd send a health department person over, but I'm closed until they get back to me."
John and Devon looked at each other in the half-light coming in from the front of the store through the open door that connected the front to the back of the store.
"What?" Jeff asked, seeing they were thinking something.
"Nothing." John said. "So, why'd you call us? Why not a congressman or the health department?"
Jeff pointed at the proofer where the flat dough wasn't rising, "Those were made with water from my house. I filled up a five gallon water bottle from home and brought it here and it's doing the same thing."
"Yeah, but," Jeff gestured from Devon to himself and back to Devon, "Why us?"
A knock at the front door, loud, authoritative distracted them all as they jumped and turned to face the front of the store. "Wait here." Jeff went to the front of the store and they heard the door chime as he unlocked it and they heard voices but couldn't make out what they were saying coming from the front of the store. Devon pushed past him moving toward the door, but staying to the side of it, out of sight. John followed.
"It seems," a new voice was saying, "that you've got some sort of contamination in your pipes. It's localized to this area. We'll be testing next door, but to avoid a panic we'd rather you didn't talk too much about it. You'll be compensated for your lost business if it's found to be a city problem, but right now it's looking like it's just here. We've got a crew coming up from the University in Ames to look into it. They should be here in half an hour or so." A phone rang and the same voice answered, "Anderson…. yes… I see. OK. Will do." There was a snap as he folded his phone shut. "That was the crew from Ames. They're running behind, caught up in some construction on the way into town. I guess nobody told them the bridge was out so they're going around. They'll be a little longer. If you want to leave us the keys we can wait for them."
"Or I could wait for them and you can wait outside in your van. How about that? That sounds better to me." Jeff said pushing the door open. They heard the chime as it opened.
"Mr. Jensen…" Another voice started.
"No." Jeff said flatly. "Don't Mr. Jensen me. I'm closed and this is one of the only nice days we've had all week and you won't tell me why and ask me to not tell anybody there's something wrong with the water? Don't Mr. Jensen me dammit. Get out. Get your people up here, and get it fixed. There's nothing wrong with these pipes and there's no reason I can't call the radio station to get them to tell people about the water being messed up either."
The first voice cut in. "Sure there is Mr. Jensen. How many people here know where you were before you came here and opened your ice cream shop?" John saw Devon stop breathing and look up, startled. "How many people know that the favorite ice cream shop on this side of town for all the local kids was in prison before he got here and started his ice cream shop? You think that's common knowledge Mr. Jensen?" Foot steps crossed the store and they heard him put a quarter in the machine and get a hand full of Hot Tamales. The man's voice wasn't angry or threatening, but matter of fact, used to getting his way.
"What?" Jeff said, the energy drained from his voice. He sounded tired and cautious.
"Nothing. I'm just saying. We both know things we'd rather didn't get out. We can help each other out more by keeping our mouths shut don't you think?" The man crossed the floor again and he pushed against the door to leave, "My guess is your having phone problems. If you could hand over your cell phone we'll go sit in the van and wait. It shouldn't be long."
"Fuck you." Jeff said, but the boys heard him slap his phone into the other man's hand.
"I don't think I'm exactly your type Mr. Jensen. You just sit tight and we'll get this all sorted out."
They heard the door shut and lock as the two men left. When Jeff came back the two of them had moved back to where he had left them. His shoulders sagged and his face looked like it had aged ten years in just minutes. His eyes looked like he was staring down the barrel of a mile long gun. "Well." He said and stopped and sat down, heavily on a box labeled "Chocolate Syrup" and put his head in his hands, staring at the floor.
Devon walked over and put his hand on Jeff's shoulder. He reached out and patted his hand on Devon's calf and then froze and jerked his hand back to clasp his other hand in his lap as if he'd been burned. "Let's get out of here." Devon said, voice low.
John looked surprised. "We can't just leave. Jeff's getting jerked around."
"I meant all of us. Those guys are assholes. There's nothing wrong with the pipes. They're just trying to cover it up. Let's get out of here."
"I can't. They'll… I can't." Jeff said, his voice hollow.
"Yes. You can. Hell, nobody cares. If you stay… nothing good will happen if you stay."
"Nothing good will happen if I go either Dev. They… I can't."
"Dude, we heard. They said you were in prison. We get that. But you're not in prison now. You can go, and I think Devon's right. Let's get out of here. Fuck 'em." John said, voice low, but intense.
"I can't!" Jeff's voice was anguished. He wouldn't look at either of them, just stared at the wall ahead of him.
"Yeah, you can." John said, determinedly. He walked to Jeff's side and grabbed his arm, hoisting him to his feet. "C'mon. Seriously. We'll talk about it somewhere else, or on the way somewhere else, but if they're going all thermo-nuclear on you now what makes you think they're going to back off later? It doesn't work like that."
"How do you know how it works?" Jeff asked, pulling his arm away from John but not sitting back down.
"Because I watch a lot of movies. And this is going to end with zombies and pitchforks. But it's not going to end with us in this back room staring at each other wonder where on the dolly that the bathing suit covers that you touched. Now c'mon!"
Jeff recoiled as if he'd been hit.
"You're an ass John." Devon said, angrily.
"I don't care. God knows you don't care Devon. My money says Mark doesn't care. But we need to go. Now." John said.
“What do you mean 'God knows'” Devon asked.
“I'm just saying it's unlikely that you care.” John said as they moved towards the door, John in front and Jeff following reluctantly while Devon brought up the rear, herding the reluctant Jeff forward.
“I think you mean more than that.” Devon said as John pushed the door open and looked to see if there were anyone in the parking lot. There wasn't and the three of them quick-walked to the silver car and Jeff climbed in the back and lay down. He still had that far away look in his eyes but he was moving, John thought that was better.
“Text Mark, tell him to grab his “Go bag” and meet us at my house.” John said letting the Prius run out of the parking lot on battery, keeping his foot off the accelerator until they'd whispered down the block and out of sight of the Dairy Queen or the van on battery power.
“Would you take me to my house, please?”
“Nope. They'll probably go there right after they realize you're gone. They don't know about me yet so my house is safe until we find out where to go.” John said.
“So, what? I'm going to just drive around and live in your basement? You think your mom will go for that?” Jeff said, sitting upright.
“Yeah, probably not. The basement's no good though. That's Dad's man-cave. You'd have to stay in my room.” John grinned at Jeff through the rear-view mirror. “Think you can handle it?”
“Shut up John.” Devon said sharply.
John was surprised. Usually Devon was sullen, mopey, passive aggressive. This wasn't normal for Devon at all. He looked over at him. “Sorry, Geez. Was making a joke.”
“It's not funny.” Devon said. He didn't look sullen or passive aggressive.
John glanced at Jeff in the rear-view at Jeff, “Sorry, man. No hard feelings?”
Jeff was looking at Devon, almost absentmindedly he answered, “It's alright.”
They pulled into the cul-de-sac that John lived in and a blue Cheverolet Lumina pulled in behind them. John and Mark got out at the same time, Devon stayed in the car.
“What's up?” Mark asked squinting to see who was in the back of John's car. “That Jeff?”
“Yeah. Get in the car, Devon'll catch you up. I'm gonna run in and grab some stuff. I'll be right back. Put your stuff in the back seat. We'll take my car.” John finished the last over his shoulder as he jogged up his steep drive to the sprawling brick ranch at the end of the cul-de-sac.
Mark slid into the driver's seat and looked at Jeff through the rear-view mirror. “So... no ice cream today?” He said, wondering what was going on.
“Not today.” Jeff said.
Devon coughed and grabbed a cigarette. “C'mon, let's talk out side the car. I want a smoke. You wait here Jeff? I think the less people who see you the better?”
“You're probably right, for a couple reasons.” Jeff said glumly.
Mark and Devon walked to the middle of the round road and Devon lit his cigarette, “Must be nice to live in this neighborhood.” He looked around at the houses, so different from the ones in his neighborhood. White wooden boxes with drafty windows and unfinished basements.
“Must be. So, we're here for a tour then?” Mark asked impatiently.
“Some guys were at the DQ, they threatened Jeff, and his bread won't rise. There's something in the water that's killing the yeast. They said if he told anybody they'd.” He paused. “They threatened him if he said anything and they said he had to stay there.”
“So, what's he doing here?” Mark asked waving at the car.
“They weren't cops. It was those guys in the van. I don't know who they are, but they aren't the good guys in this thing.” Devon sounded intense.
“You saw them?” Mark asked.
“Well, no. We were in the back. But it was John's idea to bring him here, or wherever it is we're going. I think it's a good one though. We need to get out of here and find out what's going on.”
“John's idea? You know he thinks the government and their black helicopters are behind everything. I think he thinks the government was responsible for nine-eleven. He's a conspiracy nut.”
“Hey, don't jump me. He's your friend. Aren't you the one that does what he says?” Devon said taking two quick drags off his cigarette.
“Not all the time.”
“Really? Well, this time he's right. There's something no good going on and those guys weren't playing fair, so we got Jeff out of there before they could do anything.” Devon finished his cigarette and ground it out with his old skater shoe's toe. The black on the shoe had faded to more of a blue than black. “There's something else. Don't freak out.”
“What could be more freak out worthy than mystery guys in a van threatening somebody, we're on the run with tents, and there's something in the water that might be poison?” Mark asked.
“Not normal gay, for younger guys gay.” Devon said, not having the right words or knowing how to say what he already knew.
“Like how younger?” Mark asked.
“Not legal younger is all. Not like in diapers, he's not that bad.”
“Well... what's that got to do with this?”
“That's what they threatened him with. They were going to tell everybody that he was in jail for it and he'd probably lose his business.”
“They can't take his business.”
“They wouldn't have to. You think anybody'd go there? They'd call it a bait shop or some shit like that.”
“Oh. Well, he try anything?” Mark asked.
“What? No! It just came up and John's kind of being a douche about it and Jeff's a good guy. He looks out for me sometimes when I can't go home. I don't want to see him get hurt.”
“Looks out for you how?”
“Not like that. He lets me crash at his place sometimes. It's all OK. Seriously.” He saw the questions in Mark's eyes, some Mark would ask, some he wouldn't. “Seriously. It's not like that. He's a good guy and...” Movement from the front door drew their attention as John came out carrying his “go bag” and another, larger bag over his other shoulder. “Can we talk about it later? Or just drop it and trust me? Either way.”
“Yeah, later's OK.” Mark said going to lift the trunk as it popped open. “What'd you bring? The kitchen sink?”
“No,” John answered, “I figured we'd need a bigger tent and I either had a two man tent, which would be... well... I brought the family tent, we can all crash in it. I have the solo as well in case we split up. Then there's the light and some fire starters and a little food. We should be cool for a few days worst case.”
From inside the car they heard Jeff, “I'm not staying in a tent.”
John shut the trunk and went around and they all climbed in, Devon in back with Jeff. “Well you're not going home and you can't stay here. I'm pretty sure the 'rents would notice an extra man in the house and they'd never believe you were in my class with a thyroid condition, so, I left them a note saying we'd gone to Brushy for a long weekend. That'll get us some time.”
“We're going to Brushy?” Devon asked snapping his seat belt into place.
“Of course not. That's what I told them. We're going to go back to the brick yard. It's past most of the construction, it's out of sight, and we'd see anybody coming long before they could see us. It's perfect.” John seemed proud of himself.
“Yeah, there's this thing where I work tonight and I'm supposed to go right home. I don't think Mom's going to go for me going for a long camping trip. I forgot to do the dishes.”
“You said you were going to do them when you got back home.” John said.
“I was, but she got home before me. It's not my fault!” The whine was back in Mark's voice.
“Well you're going to have to try. Call work first. Let Taylor know. She's going to be pissed.” John said.
“She's always pissed. I think it's her normal state. Ugh. There's no reason I can't go to work. Let me take my car and go to work and I'll call Mom and figure something out there and I'll meet you at at the brick yard later. If I miss work I might lose the job and I need the job. I'm off the next three days anyway so I just have to get through a four hour shift and deal with Mom and then I'll be there.”
“You're going to bail on us.” John said.
“You're going to bail. You're putting me off, and once you get your mom on the phone she'll nag you into going home and you'll cave.”
“She's my mom dude, not a girlfriend. I can't just ignore what she says.”
“Sure you can. What's she going to do? You're almost sixteen. She going to spank you? Ground you? Obviously THAT wouldn't work without your agreeing to it.”
From the back Jeff said, “Don't do that to your mom. Talk to her, and if she says you can't go then don't. Don't treat your mom like that. It's not worth it. I've seen you two together.”
“I wouldn't.” Mark said looking at John strangely.
“You don't talk like that to your mom, why would you say I should?”
“I don't because she doesn't give me very many rules and I haven't been grounded since I was in grade school. Your mom's strict as hell.” John said shrugging.
“I'll call her and see what she says.” He took out his phone and hit speed dial 6. The phone dialed and was answered on the fourth ring. She sounded like he woke her. “Mom? The guys are going camping for a long weekend tonight and... Yeah. I know... I'm sorry... I'll do the lawn and help with the basement. Please? It's going to be John and Devon... He said we were going to Brushy... What? Why? So I don't need to go in? Cool. Thanks. You OK? You sound tired? OK. I will. Get some rest... OK... me too. Bye.” He closed the phone and looked at John who was grinning at him.
“She said 'Love you' and you said 'me too' didn't you?”
“I thought you were going to work?” Jeff said.
“Taylor called the house and Mom answered, said she'd tell me. Evidently the mall is closed. Some sort of water main broke in the mall, flooded out one wing and the electrical is all messed up so the mall's closed.”
“And you believe a water main broke.” Mike said pulling out into the street.
“It's pretty hard to fake a water main. You saw GNC after the last water main broke.”
“I'm just saying.” John said holding his hands up.